The Best Films of 2014
This round-up review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 28th December 2014
Trawling my archives each December, I’m constantly surprised to realise that, actually, it wasn’t such a bad year of movies after all.
Typically we get a huge push of Oscar-season quality at the beginning and end of the year, while our winter-time languishes under the weight of Hollywood’s blockbuster season (their summer is our winter of discontent – thank goodness the excellent annual New Zealand International Film Festival steps in briefly to ease the pain). But in fact there have been plenty of bouquets. Herewith, my four and a half or five-star recommendations. You’d better catch up.
12 Years a Slave
Gruelling to witness, but exquisite in its film-making panache, Slave won three of its nine Oscar nominations and catapulted a young Kenyan actress to superstardom (Lupita Nyong’o’s third feature film is the upcoming Star Wars behemoth). Reinvigorating the “slavery epic”, it also secured British artist and director Steve McQueen’s position as one of the most exciting talents around.
Mine was a relatively lonely critical voice, but I loved this simple tale of Josh Brolin’s escaped convict inveigling his way into the household of Kate Winslet’s single mother one sweltering weekend. A fatherless boy, a peach pie and superb acting proved to be all the ingredients needed for this understated beauty of a film.
All is Lost
It’s a shame that no one saw this, because Robert Redford’s one-man-in-a-leaky-boat performance was an unexpected tour de force. Hardly uttering a word in two hours, the waters rose as his spirits sank, and I was glued to the edge of my seat.
Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey lost more than 20 kilograms and won an Oscar for this biopic about an HIV patient who fought the authorities to smuggle unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas in the 1980s. While reminding us of the horrifying prejudice routinely exhibited just three decades ago, thanks to energetic camerawork and gutsy performances all round, it was one helluva ride.
Spike Jonze’s richly imagined near-future, where Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely heart fell in love with his computer’s operating system, was one of the most anticipated and rightly heralded delights of the year. Phoenix’s wistful face stole every scene, while Scarlett Johansson’s dulcet tones enabled your suspension of disbelief.
Stories We Tell
When Canadian film-maker Sarah Polley set out to chronicle her mother’s life, she never expected to stumble into a lifetime of secrets and lies that would shake her very own existence. Her documentary proved to be a masterclass in rendering real life fascinating and gripping.
The Selfish Giant
It’s never been grimmer up north than in this slice of bittersweet social realism. Arbor and Swifty were entrepreneurial young lads searching for scrap in order to help their families “pay the electric”. With heartbreakingly real performances, this was effortless film-making which crushed and rewarded the viewer in equal measure.
Only Lovers Left Alive
One of the most sumptuous, intoxicating and yes, possibly self-indulgent love stories of modern cinema, under the pen and direction of indie darling Jim Jarmusch, this exceptionally romantic tale of two creatures of the night negotiating the travails of a long-distance relationship was so much more than a “vampire movie”.
This black and white Polish movie stole cinephiles’ hearts with its stunningly simple rendition of a young woman’s rite of passage, complicated by her exploration of her bone-chilling history.
Edge of Tomorrow
A Tom Cruise movie which didn’t take itself too seriously and had its beleaguered hero die over and over again delivered some of the biggest thrills and laughs of the year.
What We Do in the Shadows
The most consistently funny Kiwi film in over a decade, Shadows proved Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s genuine talent for bringing together a crisp idea with effortlessly engaging actors. The hilariously deadpan, utterly charming insight into the travails of nocturnal living in our capital city reinterpreted the “vampire flick” and has gone on to seduce audiences around the world. Bloody marvellous.
Ernest & Celestine
This enchanting, water-coloured animation of a bear and a mouse who strike up an unexpected friendship touched viewers old and young. Whether watched in its original French glory or with the American dub, Ernest & Celestine is a story for everyone.
My most anticipated film of the year became my No. 1 before we were even an hour in. Richard Linklater’s bravura experiment to shoot a family story over 12 years meant we watched six-year-old Ellar Coltrane morph into a teenager before our very eyes. With a superb Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as his parents, this boy’s life enraptured audiences and raised the cinematic bar.
This little Kiwi doco that could followed a group of pensioners from Waiheke Island to the World Hip Hop Championships in Las Vegas. Infectiously exciting and endlessly warm-spirited, it had me tapping my toes and whooping for joy.
Trust David Fincher to (once again) deliver a worthy adaptation of a bestselling book. With a perfect cast including Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Fincher’s usual cinematic collaborators in lighting and sound, and a script co-written by the novel’s author, he couldn’t go wrong. And he didn’t.
A bit like Fame only really, really nasty, Whiplash was as surprising as its titular injury, and just as adrenalin-inducing. Two fine central performances had us captivated and horrified: Miles Teller, as the jazz drummer studying at a prestigious music school in NYC, and the under-rated but now surely Oscar-appreciated J. K. Simmons as his excoriating tutor.
Finding Vivian Maier
A box of unclaimed negatives produced an unexpected gallery of incredible photographs and one of the most exciting “who was she?” documentaries of the year.
Christopher Nolan’s latest work took “epic” to new heights, throwing everyman McConaughey up into very outer space on a quest to save humanity. Earbashingly in-your-face, you either loved every one of its 169 minutes or you really shouldn’t have gone in the first place.
Jake Gyllenhaal proved he was more than just a pretty face by adopting a gaunt, bug-eyed face and chasing ambulances all over LA in order to get the first news footage of gruesome crime scenes. Sociopathically persistent, his Lou Bloom should be swiftly inducted into the pantheon of disenfranchised white screen males occupied by Travis Bickle and William “D-Fens” Foster. Gyllenhaal deserves an Oscar nod.